‘Bright spot’: Doctor involved in Pfizer trial expresses hope about potential COVID-19 vaccine


AUSTIN (KXAN) — While health experts sound the alarms about a resurgence in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations across the country, people are finding a sliver of hope from one company’s ongoing pursuit for a viable COVID-19 vaccine.

Pfizer announced Monday that early data showed its vaccine may be 90% effective at preventing the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. However, the company stressed this does not mean the vaccine is ready for widespread distribution and usage.

“Oh, it’s great,” Dr. Stephen Thomas said Tuesday about this development. “I think it probably exceeded many people’s expectations for what that number was going to be.”

Dr. Thomas, an infectious disease specialist in New York, told KXAN’s Will DuPree and Erin Cargile during their Japan 2020 live stream Tuesday morning that he will serve as his facility’s lead principal investigator in the advancing vaccine trial — news Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced this week. He explained approximately 44,000 people are participating in almost 150 locations worldwide during the trial’s third phase. In his expanded role, he’s designated to help compile local information Pfizer will later submit to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“I would echo what the CEO of Pfizer has said in that this is an incredible first step, but it is the first step up in multiple steps that need to be taken to ultimately have a safe and effective vaccine that’s deployed in large numbers around the country and around the world,” Dr. Thomas said. “Yes, it is a bright spot. It’s a good piece of news in an otherwise somewhat of a bleak landscape based on a lot of the number [of cases throughout the country].”

Dr. Thomas put into context why the 90% effective rate shown in the early data from the Pfizer vaccine trial is especially significant.

“The 2019-2020 influenza vaccine, the efficacy was around 45%,” he said. “Coming in at something over 90%, you can do the math very quickly — it’s almost twice what we get from annual flu, and the annual flu vaccine prevents a lot of people from getting sick. It prevents a lot of death, and so the implication is huge. It’s big.”

Dr. Thomas expressed more hope upon learning Monday who would make up the 13-member task force President-elect Joe Biden put together to implement his own response to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Biden announced the three people co-chairing the task force are former Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith of Yale University and former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler.

“I know a lot of those people. These are folks that are civil servants in many cases that have devoted their lives to protecting people from infectious diseases,” Dr. Thomas said. “It was really comforting to me to see that list. Again, hope [and] optimism, we can do this, and I think we’re in a good spot with some of these changes.”

While several companies diligently keep working on developing a viable vaccine, Dr. Thomas did not mince words painting a grim picture of the country’s current situation with the pandemic.

“We’ve already been through the first peak,” Dr. Thomas said. “We had a decrement, then we had a second peak bigger than the first, then another decrement and now we’re seeing a third peak — probably all the same wave. It’s very, very concerning.”

“I think we’re already in that dark day,” he added. “I don’t want to talk about dark future days, because I still feel this is very much within our control.”

Dr. Thomas reiterated people now need to recommit to upholding safe practices that include wearing masks, getting a flu shot, washing hands and reducing social interactions.

“Practically speaking to me that is the immediate household that you live with and a very small inner circle of friends or other family that you may not live with, but that you know how they’ve been spending the pandemic,” he said. “You know if they’re traveling, if they are mask wearers, if they partake in risky behaviors or not. You should really keep that social circle small.”

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